College Sports

Navy, Kansas State both want to control the clock

MEMPHIS – Can Kansas State beat Navy at its own game? That is one of the key questions going into the AutoZone Liberty Bowl matchup between the two schools.

The Midshipmen are famous for mounting long, time-consuming drives that shorten the game and dishearten the defense. Navy has put together 40 touchdown drives of 70 yards or longer this season with most of them lasting 10 plays or longer. A 13-play, 75-yard march against SMU that took more than six minutes off the clock is typical of what the Mids have done to opponents with their patented triple-option offense.


Kansas State, under first-year head coach Chris Klieman, employs a similar offensive philosophy. The Wildcats have authored 24 scoring drives that lasted 70 yards or more and rank third nationally in average time of possession (34 minutes, 16 seconds).

Navy normally stands top five within the Football Bowl Subdivision in that statistical category but is No. 11 this season – holding the ball for an average of 33:14 per game (That slight drop is due to a positive development that will be addressed later).


Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo did not hesitate when asked during Monday’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl press conference if he expected a low possession game.

“No doubt. To me, it could be similar to the Army game. They’re really good at what they do and possess the ball,” he said.

Klieman, who led North Dakota State to four Football Championship Subdivision national championships in five years as head coach, has made Kansas State an outlier in a Big 12 Conference comprised mostly of high-powered, up-tempo passing games. The Wildcats run the football, play sound defense and control the clock – often frustrating conference foes that are accustomed to back-and-forth shootouts.

Navy does the exact same thing to American Athletic Conference competition. However, the Midshipmen have experience going against opponents similar to themselves – namely the other two service academies. Veteran offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper compared Kansas State favorably to Navy’s two rivals.

“To me, it’s like playing against Air Force and Army where both teams are possession teams. You might get 10 possessions per game,” Jasper said. “We understand that, but now it makes every possession important. We have to be very detailed in what we do and take advantage of all our possessions. It’s a very scary game because we can’t make a mistake. If you do, you might not see the football for a while. We’ll get a taste of our own medicine.”

Stopping the Option

Kansas State defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton came from Wyoming, where he faced Air Force twice. Klieman was defensive coordinator at North Dakota State when it met Georgia Southern in the FCS playoffs. Both coaches used the same scheme against the triple-option, a 4-4 alignment with the deep safety playing the pitch.

Niumatalolo and staff have naturally studied tape of those specific games but know Kansas State could devise a different strategy for stopping Navy’s version of the option.


“From an offensive standpoint, we’ve looked at some of the history of Coach (Klieman) going against option teams, but when people get 15 practices they can change up. We’ve got to see what they’re doing quickly and try to adjust because this could be a short game,” Niumatalolo said.

Niumatalolo noted that games against high possession teams gives Navy a chance to play chess, seeing how the defense defends the option then adjusting. There will be no such luxury on Tuesday afternoon at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

“Sometimes when you play up-tempo teams that you know you’ll get a ton of possessions, you can kind of probe a little bit and test the waters,” Niumatalolo said. “Coming into these games, you have to be super detailed for what you’re doing. Your game-planning has got to be on-point and you have to know how you’re going to attack people. You have to be really selective with your play-calling.”

Based on Hazelton’s comments during a press conference here in Memphis, Navy may have wanted to evaluate tape of the 2012 Hyundai Sun Bowl between USC and Georgia Tech.

“Air Force and Navy are a little bit different in kind of the styles they do, but the same basic triple stuff is in there. When I was at Southern Cal, we played Georgia Tech. There are probably more similarities with Georgia Tech than Air Force with this team,” Hazelton said.

While the Kansas State defensive staff had two weeks to prepare, it was starting from ground zero. It was Triple-Option 101 with Hazelton explaining to the players how Navy lined up, the basic blocking assignments and the elements of fullback dive, quarterback keeper and slotback pitch.


“It’s a totally different preparation. There’s not one call that we’ve made throughout 12 games and X amount snaps that we’re going to make on Tuesday. It’s a brand-new defense,” Klieman said. “I think the fortunate thing is we didn’t play them on Dec. 17 or have three days to prepare. We’ve had ample time to prepare to try to come up with plan A and plan B so to speak.”

Klieman has been around long enough to know Niumatalolo and Jasper have seen every possible tactic ever attempted against the option.

“Nothing surprises any team that runs these types of offense. No matter what you throw at them, they just open the page and say this is how you attack it,” he said. “It’s going to be a tremendous challenge. It’s assignment football. It’s eye discipline. It’s reading your keys.”

Big-play Potential

Kansas State has held opponents to 152 rushing yards per game, but that stat is deceiving due to the ball-hogging ability of its offense and a schedule loaded primarily with passing teams. The Wildcats rank 106th nationally in rushing yards per attempt, allowing almost 5 yards per carry.

A particularly notable statistic is that 17 percent of rushing plays against Kansas State have gone for 20 yards or more. Navy has shown the big-play ability necessary to exploit that apparent weakness.


Quarterback Malcolm Perry and fullback Jamale Carothers both possess breakaway speed and that is a big reason why the Midshipmen lead the nation in rushing plays of 20 (45), 30 (23) and 50 (9) yards or more.

That quick-strike potential extends to the passing game as Navy averages 24 yards per catch. A slew of explosive plays explain why the Mids do not rank as high as usual in time of possession.

Perry is looking to put the finishing touches on arguably the greatest individual offensive season in Navy history. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound senior has already set the single-season school record with 1,804 rushing yards and needs 117 more to break the FBS mark for a quarterback that is held by Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois (1,920 in 2013).

Perry is especially dangerous when dropping back on designed passing plays, having run for more than 700 yards when scrambling out of the pocket. Perry’s penchant for tucking the ball and taking off forces opponents to assign a defender to him on pass plays.

“He’s got great lateral ability to move and make people miss,” Hazelton said of Perry.

Klieman watched the Army-Navy game when Perry broke long run after long run on the way to 304 rushing yards.


“If you’re not right with everybody’s responsibilities, (Perry) is going to run for 400 yards,” said Klieman, adding that Perry is the best option quarterback he’s ever seen – surpassing former Georgia Southern standout Jerick McKinnon, who played four seasons in the NFL as a running back for the Minnesota Vikings.

Wildcats Boast Balanced Offense

Navy will have its hands full with the Kansas State offense, which is led by quarterback Skylar Thompson. The Wildcats have displayed tremendous balance all season in amassing 2,268 rushing yards and 2,228 passing yards.

“As a football coach watching what they do on offense, I love it. It’s a really good system. Really, really balanced. They’re a tough, physical football team, very big and strong up front,” Navy defensive coordinator Brian Newberry said. “They’re a nightmare to defend. We’re going to have to play really, really well.”

Thompson is the classic dual-threat quarterback, having passed for 2,191 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for 402 yards and 10 scores.

“I’m really, really impressed with the quarterback, who can throw it and run it and makes good decisions,” Newberry said. “I think the quarterback is a really, really good player that might not get enough credit to be honest.”


Newberry is quite familiar with Klieman and his offensive philosophy, having studied tape of North Dakota State while defensive coordinator at Kennesaw State. Newberry is seeing the same schemes when watching Kansas State film from this season.

“It’s the same mentality. They’re going to run it, run it, run it then go play-action pass. Lots of personnel groupings with motion, shifting and all that,” he said.

Starter Justin Gilbert, who leads the team with 698 rushing yards, spearheads a deep fleet of tailbacks that also features Jordon Brown (367 rushing yards).

Memphis was one opponent that played smash-mouth football against Navy and wound up with 291 rushing yards. The Mids did a good job defending the option running attacks of Air Force and Army and rank No. 17 nationally in rushing defense (110 yards allowed per game).

“What you don’t see nowadays is a lot of two-back teams that line up and run the power and run it right at you. They do a really good job of doing that,” Newberry said of Kansas State. “They have a really nice play-action pass game to compliment what they do in the running game. They stress you in a lot of different ways.”

Kansas State offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham has been impressed by the Navy defense, which is strong up the middle thanks to 300-pound nose guard Jackson Pittman, inside linebacker Diego Fagot (team-high 93 tackles) and rover safety Kevin Brennan (78 tackles).


Outside linebacker Jacob Springer has been a playmaker, leading Navy with 16 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Fagot has recorded 10 tackles for loss, while rush linebacker Nizaire Cromartie has nine for the Midshipmen, who are allowing just 22 points per game.

“They are very, very sound. They understand their fits. All you have to do is go look at their inside linebacker, No. 54 (Fagot). Just the way he plays the game is a tribute to how they go about their business every day,” Messingham said. “They’re sound at what they do, and they play physical and they play hard. They make you make big plays against them.”

Messingham seemed concerned that Kansas State’s ball-control strategy may not work as well against Navy as it did throughout the season. “I think it’s important for our players to understand that we’re similar in styles of offense,” he said.

Navy converts 76 percent of its third down opportunities (72-for-156) and 75 percent of fourth down attempts (24-for-32).

One more key statistic to watch for on Tuesday afternoon. Navy ranks third nationally in red zone scoring efficiency (96 percent), while Kansas State is dead last (130th out of 130 FBS teams) in red zone defense (opponents score 96 percent of the time).